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Movement Building from the Ground Up

Lessons from supporting California's immigrant rights movement

As funders, letting policy issues bubble up from the grassroots rather than come in with preconceived solutions can make all the difference.

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California is a big and diverse state. That’s what makes it such an exciting place to live and work. But our size and geographic diversity also make it hard to bring people together to work on shared priorities, especially on an issue like immigrant rights. We have large, urban immigrant rights groups, small and very rural ones, and many in between. When the Haas, Jr. Fund and other foundations looked out at the immigration movement as we were starting our work on this issue a decade ago, we saw fragmentation and a lack of coordination that stymied progress on immigrant rights and integration. 

Inspired by the power of statewide immigrant coalitions in other states, in 2005 we set out to explore if advocates would embrace the idea of a statewide coalition to unify the movement. But before long, we heard loud and clear that California is too large and too diverse to be coordinated by a single entity. It just didn’t fly. And the fact that foundations were offering this solution led to criticism from some people in the movement that funders were driving what should be a community agenda.

So in 2009 we took a different approach and decided it would be better to let priorities emerge from the ground up. Our focus was on starting where the movement was and building from there rather than coming in with preconceived ideas. That was the right call — and it has led to broader ownership and coordinated action on a set of priorities where the movement has generated important wins.

For example, as we started this work advocates around the state were struggling every day to get their voices heard in a media environment where anti-immigrant messages ruled the day. Based on this, there was strong interest across the movement in being more proactive in shaping the policy debate and public opinion by using smarter communications. With support from the Haas, Jr. Fund and other foundations, advocates figured out the best way to talk about the contributions of immigrants, developed a messaging toolkit, trained community members and spokespeople, and began to turn the debate around. As it turned out, focusing on communications was a safe way for groups to come together, build trust and work on a common goal.

Around the same time, we began to see Dreamers come out as undocumented. These young people were speaking up and using their incredible savvy to push for fair treatment. As a result, the movement coalesced around Dreamer issues and the importance of access to education and opportunity for these young people. This public education work laid the foundation for passage of the California Dream Act in 2011, which provides Dreamers attending state colleges and universities with access to financial aid and private scholarships. That was a huge win—and it created momentum for the national effort to extend equal opportunities to Dreamers.

A third priority advocates embraced was enforcement reform. Day in and day out, they were seeing how unjust enforcement policies and racial profiling were striking terror in immigrant communities around the state. After highlighting these injustices and educating the public, law enforcement and policymakers, the movement made it possible for California to adopt the TRUST Act, which limits deportation of immigrants who pose no threat. It was another big win — and another piece of evidence that the movement was finding its collective voice.

A few years ago, I wouldn’t have thought that the Haas, Jr. Fund would be working on an issue like enforcement. But enforcement reforms in California have reduced fear in immigrant communities, and this work has galvanized the immigrant rights movement to come together in new ways to work for change. And all of this happened because funders supported people and organizations to identify and work on policy concerns that bubbled up from communities and resonated with advocates around the state.

Maybe it took a little longer, but letting these priorities emerge from the ground up has led to more ownership, and it has fueled the grassroots power to push tough wins across the finish line.

At a time when action on immigration reform is stalled in D.C., it is reassuring to see what’s working in California. And it is important to remember that social change starts from the ground up.

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